From its opening frame, John Favreau’s 2003 effort “Elf” works its way into your heart, even though, on the surface, it never should have worked. It stars Will Farrell, known for mostly raunchy comedies, James Caan, known for tough guy fests, and Zooey Deschanel. It’s a story about an elf who leaves the North Pole to discover his true identity. It’s also a story about a man who discovers the meaning of family. And in between, it features an innocence and humor reminiscent of old-fashioned holiday hallmarks such as “Santa Clause is Coming to Town” or “Frosty the Snowman.” It’s not perfect, but as a holiday-aimed film accomplishes just what it’s supposed to.
Fans of 1960s Christmas movie animation will appreciate the film’s opening, which features Buddy (Will Farrell), an elf much taller than all others at the North Pole, who’s told he’s really a human and ventures to New York City to find out who he really is. Present are crisp winter wonderlands, and a plethora of iconic characters, most notable the snowman from “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” In quick succession, Buddy ends up in Manhattan, at the office of a man he believes is his father, Walter, who is played by James Caan with that sarcastic slickness that made his villain in “Eraser” so compelling. Of course he, and most others around him, don’t believe Buddy’s an elf – but he just won’t take off that costume for anything.
“Elf” has an innocence that somehow works by having its main character accept it readily, which in turn urges us to do the same. Farrell, who I’ve complained about before in films like the raunchy “Step Brothers” sells the film to us with his naiveté. A pair of security guards tells him to go back to the Christmas department store thinking he’s a mental case; Buddy smiles and nods, finding a piece of home in the decorated urban mall. From accusing a mall Santa of being fake, to encouraging the lovely Jovie (Deschanel) to let her singing voice be heard, Farrell somehow redeems himself from a plethora of throw-a-way roles in the jovial Buddy. The portrayal succeeds almost solely in Farrell’s restraint – instead of going for his usual over-the-top antics, he’s content to tone it down and let the story tell itself.
A host of warm performances buffer Farrell’s, most notably Caan, Deschanel, and Daniel Tay, who plays Buddy’s ‘brother’ Michael. Caan, who is a long way from “The Godfather” with this film, pulls off the seemingly impossible transition of starting off as a hard-nosed businessman with no time for family who’ll end up singing Christmas Carols in the streets of Midtown by the end. And Deschanel brings such a sweetness to the role of Jovie, that she and Farrell sell their romance to us with an incredibly small amount of screen time together. It’s not a romance of closed doors, but one out in the open where a bad cup of coffee becomes a night to remember. Balancing this out, Tay, who starts off treating Buddy the same as his father, brings an inherent charm to the movie. A scene involving a snowball fight in Central Park is one of the funniest in the film; another involving a heart-to-heart with his father in his office is one of the hardest. Quick note should be given to Mary Steenburgen, who plays Walter’s wife, and turns in an enjoyable performance as always.
I suppose you could criticize this film. It reeks of predictability, and there’s no shying away from convention here. Even if it’s not raunchy, it is goofy, and a few scenes (such as one where Buddy eats a mix of spaghetti, Pop-Tarts, and maple syrup for breakfast) push the envelope a little too far. But it knows when to pull back. Buddy does annoying things that get on the grown-ups’ nerves, but somehow is never annoying. Farrell doesn’t feign innocence, but somehow becomes it. This is never so evident as in the movie’s joy filled finale that gives viewers a warm close to a humor-filled picture.
I like this film. My expectations weren’t high, but I was pleasantly surprised. Aside from being wholesome entertainment that the whole family could enjoy, “Elf” manages to make keen observations about family, faith, and the Christmas spirit along the way. The movie’s players are all enjoyable, and it just makes you feel good to watch it. This is a movie, like “The Santa Clause,” that is often overlooked around the holidays in favor of age-old classics. Watch those too, if you must. But give “Elf” a try – it’s not likely to disappoint.
– by Mark Ziobro